The Economic Wisdom of Joe Millionaire

By Bill Winter

Oct 28, 2003

According to critics, there are a million reasons to despise Joe Millionaire.

The show, now in its second season, debuted on the Fox network on October 20 to a ferocious drubbing.

Newsday said it catered to "lies, deceit, greed, and stupidity." The Fort Worth Star Telegram called it a "trash wallow." The Chicago Sun-Times dubbed it a "xenophobic rerun."

They're wrong. Joe Millionaire is, in fact, a profound morality tale and a no-nonsense economics lesson.

In case you've been living under a rock, the premise of this reality show is clever (but insidious): An ordinary guy is plunked down in a luxurious mansion and outfitted with fancy duds, an English butler, and a cover story.

A bevy of beautiful women are told he's a millionaire. They get to compete for his affections -- and for his bags of (fictitious) money. The scheming sirens do so, with gusto.

As with all great fairy tales, there's a surprise ending. In the final show, the winning beauty is told that Joe Millionaire is, in fact, Joe Thousandaire. (In the first season, he was Evan Marriott, a heavy-equipment operator who earned $19,000 a year.)

She's given a choice: If it's true love, she can stick with this ordinary Joe. If not, it's farewell to this flimflam fellow and his faux fortune.

In the first season finale, winner Zora Andrich surprised 40 million viewers by standing by her man. Each was then unexpectedly rewarded with a $500,000 check from Fox, which knows how to stage a happy ending.

Fast forward to Season Two. The show is now set in Europe, where a fresh crop of covetous cuties are waiting to be fooled by a pauper masquerading as a prince. This year he's David Smith, a rodeo rider who earned $11,000 last year. The 14 Euro-vixens are told he's worth $80 million. Let the scheming begin.

We're supposed to be appalled by the show. It's deceitful. It's vacuous. It celebrates greed. It ignores "love me tender" in favor of "love my legal tender."

Nonsense. Joe Millionaire could be a case study from an Economics 101 textbook. It's Chapter One: How Not To Get Rich. It should be required viewing for all business school graduates -- and for any would-be treasure-seeking temptress.

Here's what we learn from Joe Millionaire:

* There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Repeat after me: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. He's a millionaire? He's handsome? He lives in a mansion? And he might marry you?

Right. And that nice politician really does care about you. And that 50-million-to-one state lottery ticket is a winner. And Social Security will be around for your children.

Want to avoid getting scammed like Joe Millionaire's upwardly mobile maidens? Remember: In life, "free" stuff is frequently the most expensive. Which leads us to lesson number two...

* The best way to get a million dollars is by working hard.

In their book, The Millionaire Next Door, authors Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko studied how Americans get rich.

Their research punctured one myth: Generally, you won't become rich in America by being born into a wealthy family. Over 80 percent of millionaires earned their own money; only 20 percent inherited it.

Instead, here's how to get rich: Be self-employed (two-thirds of millionaires work for themselves). Get a good education (four of five have a college degree). Be industrious (most work 45 to 55 hours a week). And be frugal (most live in modest homes, save their money, and drive inexpensive cars).

The Millionaire Next Door reminds us why capitalism is so great. It rewards hard work. It rewards thrift. It rewards initiative. Best of all, it creates new wealth, and new products and services, that benefit everyone.

Joe Millionaire, by contrast, is like socialism; it dangles a phony something-for-nothing prize before the gullible. It doesn't reward work; it rewards deviousness. It's a sum-zero game; one person wins, and everyone else loses.

There's an honest way to become rich. And there's a dishonest way. Joe Millionaire illustrates the difference.

So where will I be next Monday night? I'll be studying economics. I'll be learning about building wealth. I'll be contemplating morality.

I'll be watching Joe Millionaire.


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